January 2017

Telegraph boys were the first Uber drivers

I have been reading "Bike battles" by James Longhurst of the University of Wisconsin.  The book is a review of the history of cycling in the United Stastes, with particular emphasis on the cultural and legal aspects of how bicycles have been granted (or not) access to public roadways.

I may have more to say about this interesting book later.  However, a passage on telegraph boys in the early 20th century struck me (pp. 112ff). 

Do smartphones shape people's purchase decisions?

A topic of perennial interest in technology studies is how technology shapes the way people think.  It is clear that the way people think affects technology, as in the example of how gender is encoded in architecture, recently noted in this blog.

Gender in hospital architecture

Annmarie Adam's book Medicine by design (2007) examines how hospital architecture shaped and responded to changing ideas about medicine and its place in the urban realm.  It uses the development of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal (1893–1943) as its central case study.

Progress in treatment with antibiotics

In our class on Design & Society, we discuss the so-called dilemma of progress.  With any design whose introduction poses potential risk, there is a decision to make on how to regulate it.  In simplest terms, there are two possibilities:

Privacy and control of personal information

A number of interesting posts concerning privacy showed up today, which made good reading together.  In particular, these articles concern privacy, in this case, the control that people have about data concerning themselves. 

From the archives: Anatomy of a collaboration: A 1986 workshop on technology and autonomy

CSTV logo

The first major event at the Centre for Society, Technology and Values (CSTV) was a full-day workshop on “Technology and Autonomy,” held in March 1986. (See Newsletter, May 1986.)  Some afternoon sessions had as many as 60 in attendance. This event can be usefully analyzed from a variety of perspectives.

What is a hockey arena?

An enduring theme in design is the relation between form and function.  For example, is there an ideal form that corresponds to a given function?  How do form and function relate and develop over time?

From the archives: Let the voices of students be heard

In September 1985, a major student conference was held at the University of Waterloo. Organized by the now defunct Canadian Studies program, the conference was supported by a number of faculty members associated with the Centre for Society, Technology and Values (CSTV), including director Larry Haworth.

Is parking unjust?

John Metcalfe of CityLab points out an interesting video shot on a street in New York City recently.  The video is a time-lapse recording of activity at a City Bike dock featuring rentable bicycles and curbside parking across the street.  Voilà!

The point, says videogrpaher Luke Ohlson, is that the bike dock is much busier than the car parking. 

From the archives: Bridging the divide between the “two cultures”

CSTV logo

Dr. Scott Campbell, Director of the Centre for Society, Technology and Values (CSTV) and instructor of STV 100, still finds it useful to introduce students to the idea expressed by scientist and novelist C.P. Snow that Western intellectual life is split into two cultures—the sciences and the humanities.

From the archives: The founding of the Centre—a timely reminder

CSTV logo

The history of the Centre for Society, Technology and Values (CSTV) can tell us a lot about the history of the University of Waterloo. Founded in 1984, the Centre has been around for more than half of Waterloo’s 60 years. It began during a period of expansion and optimism on campus. Although the scope of its activities later contracted during a time of fiscal restraint, the Centre has survived and even thrived, in a modest way. As the university’s mission and goals have evolved to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society, CSTV has remained relevant and significant.

Stickers for the bottom of your feet?

Rich Haridy points to a new item on Kickstarter called "Nakefit".  Rather than wear flop-flips on the beach or at the pool, wouldn't you prefer foot-shaped stickers for the bottom of your feet?  The makers of Nakefit think so.

As Rich points out, this idea seems to be in tension between "why?" and "of course!".

Uberizing medicine?

stethoscope

Dr. Rahul Parikh has written an interesting piece on the "Uberization" of medicine.  By this expression, Dr. Parikh refers to app services that some start-ups have created to allow doctors to perform freelance medical consultations over the Internet.

Will shoes made of algae fight pollution?

An interesting piece by Adele Peters of FastCompany describes shoes made partly from a funky kind of plastic derived from algae

The Ultra III shoes, made by a company called Vivobarefoot, are partly made with algae skimmed from freshwater lakes.  This algae is turned into a foam that is blended with a standard plastic, ethylene-vinyl acetate, to form the material for the shoes.

Guerilla apps from IranCubator

An NGO called United for Iran has undertaken a project called IranCubator.  The purpose of IranCubator is the development of apps that provide Iranians with relevant information that they may otherwise find hard to get given government censorship.

IranCubator takes the form of an ongoing contest in which app developers consider suggestions for app designs and implement the ones that they like best.  The effort has resulted in several recent app releases.

Political campaigning and culture

A piece by Mark Scott in the New York Times states that efforts by the American alt-right to support Marine Le Pen's campaign for President of France have fallen flat.  Tactics that worked in the American campaign for Donald Trump do not "translate."

One tactic has been to spread memes, that is, posters featuring a picture, often of Emmanuel Macron, Ms. Le Pen's rival, and a clever caption.  Such efforts have encountered two problems.

Emoji architecture :) or :(

In a Wired article, Sam Lubell describes a building that incorporates emojis into its exterior.  Dutch architect Changiz Tehrani decided to enliven the facade of an apartment building in Vathorst by having emojis molded in relief in intersections of its surface elements.

Transparency and legitimacy in Ontario elections using e-voting

Many Ontario municipalities are currently involved in debates over the adoption of e-voting.  I recently wrote a report that I submitted to the City Council of Guelph (where I live) urging against its adoption here.  I also delegated to the Council on this issue (24 April).  Since other speakers were covering matters such as security and accessibility, I decided to use my five minutes to raise the issue of transparency. 

New book: Design and society

My new book is now out!  The full title is, "Design and Society: Social issues in technological design."  The book was written for the STV 202 course but is also suitable for a general audience since it is non-technical and assumes no previous familiarity with the topic.  It is also brief, at under 250 pages, and contains numerous, practical examples of concepts discussed.

Ethics in technological design

The theme of CSTV's Design & Society course is "good design".  When I ask students what this expression means, they tend to think, first of all, about technical matters, e.g., efficiency, cost, usability, and so on.  However, as the course progresses, we come to ethical issues, e.g., is the design "good" for people, and in what sense?

Fair algorithms

An interesting piece by Matt Reynolds in New Scientist describes work that aims to make algorithms fair.  A team of computer scientists at the Alan Turing Institute in London defines a fair algorithm as follows:

[a fair algorithm is] one that makes the same decision about an individual regardless of demographic background.

Why have augmented reality on a smarphone?

Mark Sullivan at FastCompany reports that Apple is planning its entry into the augmented reality market.  In rough terms, augmented reality (AR) involves layering computer-generated graphics over live views of a given scene.

Seats for disabled passengers

An interesting post by Áine Pennello in CityLab discusses how disabled passengers may find seating on public transit.  There is often not enough seating for everyone, so the matter of who sits becomes an important issue. 

The LZR bike

Ben Coxworth at New Atlas recently posted a short piece about a bicycle going by the name of the Camard LZR.  One look at the design shows that the bike is meant to be distinctive.

Is basketball the same without the sound effect?

I recently discussed the matter of authenticity in connection with soymilk.  I asked: Is soymilk milk?  Fake milk? 

Is soymilk milk?

Candice Choi published an interesting article in STAT about a controversy regarding "fake milk".  Dairy producers in the USA are asking the Food and Drug Administration to crack down on products with names such as "soymilk", arguing that they are not really milk under FDA rules.

“Mammals produce milk, plants don’t,” said Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation.

Can communication cure road rage?

Timothy Revell reports on a system named "CarNote" that allows drivers to send each other messages while underway.  The basic idea is that drivers can explain their behavior to others, thus reducing the risk of aggressive interactions, e.g., "road rage".

Technology and the fragility of human dignity

Ian Bogost has written a lovely little essay for the Atlantic, musing on the ends of technology and their impact on human dignity.  His conclusion is fundamentally pessimistic, that humanity is perhaps blindly and inexorably headed towards a state where people work for their machines rather than the other way around.

Is that baby monitor fair?

A brief article in the Journal of the American Medical Association raises a significant issue related to app-enabled baby monitors.  Bonafide et al. draw attention to the increasing popularity of wearables for infants that supposedly monitor their health status and report it to parents via their smartphones.

Is honesty always the best policy in design?

Noted industrial designer Dieter Rams insisted that good design is honest.  He formulated this idea in the sixth of his Ten Principles of good design:

It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

The Netherlands reverts to counting paper ballots by hand

A piece by Sewell Chan in the New York Times notes that Dutch authorities have pulled the plug on computerized ballots and ballot counting for their next national election.

The move was prompted by concerns over the integrity of the election in the face of hacking concerns. In particular, allegations of tampering in the recent US election have caused the Dutch government to re-examine their setup, which was found wanting:

Chacun à son goût

Katherin Schwab has written an interesting piece on FastCompany about a new utensil called the Goûte.  It is basically a wand with a tear-drop shaped end.  Users dip the thick end into viscous foods like yogurt, swirl to get the food to stick, and then put it in their mouths to eat.

What makes a car authentic?

Mike Hanlon posted an interesting article centered on the upcoming auction of a 1952, Type 1 Volkswagen Beetle. This particular Beetle is distinguished by the fact that it has had only one owner since it was made and has been in storage for forty years.  Thus, it is in good shape with just the sort of wear that would be expected from a few years' normal usage.

It is expected to fetch between €55,000 to €80,000 ($60,000 to $85,000), considerably more than it cost the original owner.

Ad blockers and the social contract

Mark Scott notes that use of ad blocking software is on the rise world-wide.  The software attempts to prevent advertising on a web site from loading and displaying on a viewer's computer. 

Recent research suggests that 11% of Internet users globally employ one kind of this software or another.  That represents a 30% increase over its prevalence from a year ago.

AI, you and your work

The adoption of computers has profoundly impacted work.  It gave rise to a new class of laborer, e.g., the "knowlege worker". It  also replaced certain kinds of work, e.g., through automation.  Trade-offs of this type are a normal result of technological changes.

Currently, artificial intelligence is assuming a greater role in work.  Three recent article illustrate this trend and the sorts of trade-offs that come with it.

Cities of cars?

There has been much dicussion of self-driving cars and their pros and cons.  How will they handle impending accidents?  Who will own them?  How will they affect traffic?

More efficiency, more consumption?

Developers of technology pursue efficiency relentlessly.  This is done for a variety of reasons: Efficiency is readily quantified and lends itself to comparison between designs; a preference for efficiency seems simply rational (who wouldn't prefer a more efficient car over a less efficient one?); increases in efficiency increase sustainability.

What is a gimmick?

Posts in this blog sometimes relate to a some design and pose the question, "Is this a gimmick?"  A recent example concerned a speaker-battery combination pack for electric bikes.

GMO agriculture 2.0?

I was interested to read in a recent Nature Genetics editorial that maybe the public could participate directly in pursuit of the genetic editing of agricultural crops.

This statement, in particular, is striking:

Eyeglasses are not just for seeing

One of the most famous dictums associated with Modernist design is that "Form follows function."  Typically, what modernists mean by this expression is that the design of a product should be dictated by the job it is to perform for users—and nothing else!

However, Modernists tended to take a narrow view of what a function is.  In their view, this was limited to physical services that a product might perform for its users. 

Should the Indian flag be a Canadian doormat?

Amazon Canada got into some trouble recently when it was found that a vendor was using its web service to sell doormats decorated with the Indian flag.  India's external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was alerted to the matter by vigilant Twitter users, who consider this usage an insult to their national flag.

Should a fitness tracker look like a ring?

For our first posting of 2017, consider a new fitness tracking device in the form of a finger ring.  The Motiv Ring tracks sleep patterns, heart rate, steps and other activities, all while looking chic.  It will officially debut at this year's Consumer Electronics Show and is priced at $199 (USD).

The Ring contains some technological innovations, including optical heart rate tracking and impressive miniaturization. 

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